With a framework for Virginia’s energy transition in place, here’s what happens next

workers installing solar panels on a roof

One expected effect of the Clean Economy Act will be a boom in solar jobs across Virginia. Photo courtesy of NREL.

With Democrats in charge, Virginia passed a suite of bills that establish a sturdy framework for a transition to renewable energy in the electric sector.

At the center of this transformation are the Clean Economy Act, HB1526/SB851, and the Clean Energy and Community Flood Preparedness Act, HB981/SB1027. Other new laws direct further planning, make it easier for customers to install solar, improve the process for siting wind and solar farms, and expand financing options for energy efficiency and renewable energy.

Gov. Ralph Northam has signed some bills already, and has until April 11 to sign the others or send them back to the General Assembly with proposed amendments. Once signed, legislation takes effect on July 1.

I assume the Governor has other things on his mind right now than asking the General Assembly to tinker further with a bill like the Clean Economy Act, though bill opponents may be using the virus pandemic to argue for delay. That would be a self-defeating move; as the economy restarts, Virginia is going to need the infusion of jobs and investment that come with the build-out of clean energy. And one of the strongest arguments in support of our energy transition, after all, is that it will save money for consumers.

So what happens after July 1? How does this all work? Let’s look at the way these major pieces of legislation will change the energy landscape in Virginia.

Virginia joins RGGI, and CO2 emissions start to fall. 

Virginia’s Department of Environmental Quality has already written the regulations that call for Virginia power plants to reduce emissions by 30 percent by 2030. The mechanism for achieving this involves Virginia trading with the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, a regional carbon cap and trade market.

The regulations have been on hold as the result of a budget amendment passed last year, when Republicans still ruled the General Assembly. After July 1, DEQ will be able to implement the regulations, with the commonwealth participating in carbon allowance auctions as early as the last quarter of this year or the first quarter of 2021.

In addition to joining RGGI, the Clean Energy and Community Flood Preparedness Act also allows the commonwealth to earn money from the allowance auctions. The Department of Housing and Community Development will spend 50 percent of auction proceeds on “low-income efficiency programs, including programs for eligible housing developments.”

The Department of Conservation and Recreation will get 45 percent of the auction proceeds to fund flood preparedness and climate change planning and mitigation through the Virginia Community Flood Preparedness Fund. The last 5 percent of proceeds will cover administrative costs, including those for administering the auctions.

Energy efficiency savings become mandatory, not just something to throw money at.

Two years ago, the Grid Transformation and Security Act required Dominion and Appalachian Power to propose more than a billion dollars in energy efficiency spending over 10 years, but the law didn’t say the programs had to actually be effective in lowering electricity demand.

This year that changed. For the first time, Virginia will have an energy efficiency resource standard (EERS) requiring Dominion to achieve a total of 5 percent electricity savings by 2025 (using 2019 as the baseline); APCo must achieve a total of 2 percent savings. The SCC is charged with setting new targets after 2025. At least 15 percent of the costs must go to programs benefiting low-income, elderly or disabled individuals, or veterans.

The EERS comes on top of the low-income energy efficiency spending funded by RGGI auctions.

Dominion and Appalachian Power ramp up renewables and energy storage. 

The Clean Economy Act requires Dominion to build 16,100 megawatts of onshore wind and solar energy, and APCo to build 600 megawatts. The law also contains one of the strongest energy storage mandates in the country: 2,700 MW for Dominion, 400 MW for Appalachian Power.

Beginning in 2020, Dominion and Appalachian must submit annual plans to the SCC for new wind, solar and storage resources. We’ll have a first look at Dominion’s plans just a month from now: the SCC has told the company to take account of the Clean Economy Act and other new laws when it files its 2020 Integrated Resource Plan on May 1.

The legislation provides a strangely long lead time before the utilities must request approval of specific projects: by the end of 2023 for APCo (the first 200 MW) or 2024 for Dominion (the first 3,000 MW). But the build-out then becomes rapid, and the utilities must issue requests for proposals on at least an annual basis.

In addition to the solar and land-based wind, Dominion now has the green light for up to 3,000 MW of offshore wind from the project it is developing off Virginia Beach, and which it plans to bring online beginning in 2024. All told, the Clean Economy Act proclaims up to 5,200 MW of offshore wind by 2034 to be in the public interest.

Dominion’s plans for new gas plants come to a screeching halt.

Before the 2020 legislative session, Dominion’s Integrated Resource Plan included plans for as many as 14 new gas combustion turbines to be built in pairs beginning in 2022. In December, the company announced plans to build four gas peaking units totaling nearly 1,000 MW, to come online in 2023 and 2024.

But that was then, and this is now. The Clean Economy Act prohibits the SCC from issuing a certificate of convenience and necessity for any carbon-emitting generating plant until at least January 1, 2022, when the secretaries of natural resources and commerce and trade submit a report to the General Assembly “on how to achieve 100 percent carbon-free electric energy generation by 2045 at least cost to ratepayers.”

Even with no further moratorium, Dominion will find it hard to sell the SCC on the need for new gas plants on top of all the renewable energy and energy storage mandated in the Clean Economy Act. Solar and battery storage together do the same job that a gas peaker would have done — but they are required, and the gas peaker is not. Meanwhile, the energy efficiency provisions of the act mean demand should start going down, not up.

Dominion has already signaled that it recognizes the days of new gas plants are largely over. On March 24, Dominion filed a request with the SCC to be excused from considering new fossil fuel and nuclear resources in its upcoming Integrated Resource Plan filing, arguing that “significant build-out of natural gas generation facilities is not currently viable” in light of the new legislation.

Fossil fuel and biomass plants start closing.

By 2024, the Clean Economy Act requires the closure of all Dominion or APCo-owned oil-fueled generating plants in Virginia over 500 MW and all coal units other than Dominion’s Virginia City Hybrid plant in Wise County and the Clover Station that Dominion co-owns with Old Dominion Electric Cooperative.

This mandate is less draconian than it sounds; it forces the closure of just two coal units, both at Dominion’s Chesterfield plant. Other Dominion coal plants in Virginia have already been retired or switched to using gas or biomass, and one additional coal plant in West Virginia lies beyond the reach of the legislation. Oil-fired peaking units at Yorktown and Possum Point were already slated for retirement in 2021 and 2022. APCo owns no coal or biomass plants in Virginia.

Although the exceptions might appear to swallow the rule, the truth is that coal plants are too expensive to survive much longer anyway. One indication of this is a March 24 report Dominion filed with the SCC showing its fuel generation sources for 2019: coal has now fallen to below 8 percent of generation.

By 2028, Dominion’s biomass plants must shut down, another victory for consumers. All other carbon-emitting generating units in Virginia owned by Dominion and APCo must close by 2045, including the Virginia City plant and all the gas plants.

As of 2050, no carbon allowances can be awarded to any generating units that emit carbon dioxide, including those owned by the coops and merchant generators, with an exception for units under 25 MW as well as units bigger than 25 MW (if they are owned by politically well-connected multinational paper companies with highly-paid lobbyists).

Solar on schools and other buildings becomes the new normal.

In December, Fairfax County awarded contracts for the installation of solar on up to 130 county-owned schools and other sites, one of the largest such awards in the nation. Using a financing approach called a third-party power purchase agreement (PPA), the county would get the benefits of solar without having to spend money upfront. The contracts were written to be rideable, meaning other Virginia jurisdictions could piggyback on them to achieve cost savings and lower greenhouse gas emissions.

Fairfax County’s projects, along with others across the state, hit a wall when, on Jan. 7, the SCC announced that the 50 MW program cap for PPAs in Dominion territory had been reached. But with the passage of the Clean Economy Act and Solar Freedom legislation, customers will be able to install up to 1,000 MW worth of solar PPAs in Dominion territory and 40 MW in APCo territory.

Fairfax County schools will soon join their counterparts in at least 10 other jurisdictions across the state that have already installed solar. With the PPA cap no longer a barrier, and several other barriers also removed, local governments will increasingly turn to solar to save money and shrink their carbon footprints.

Virginia agencies start working on decarbonizing the rest of the economy. 

In spite of its name, the Clean Economy Act really only tackles the electric sector, with a little spillover into home weatherization. That still leaves three-quarters of the state’s greenhouse gas emissions to be addressed in transportation, buildings, agriculture and industry. Ridding these sectors of greenhouse gas emissions requires different tools and policies.

Other legislation passed this session starts that planning process. SB94(Favola) and HB714 (Reid) establish a policy for the commonwealth to achieve net-zero emissions economy-wide by 2045 (2040 for the electric sector) and require the next Virginia Energy Plan, due in 2022, to identify actions towards achieving the goal. Depending on who the next governor is, we may see little or nothing in the way of new proposals, or we may see proposals for transportation and home electrification, deep building retrofits, net-zero homes and office buildings, carbon sequestration on farm and forest land and innovative solutions for replacing fossil fuels in industrial use.

Collateral effects will drive greenhouse gas emissions even lower.

Proposed new merchant gas plants are likely to go away. With Virginia joining RGGI and all fossil fuel generating plants required to pay for the right to spew carbon pollution, the developers of two huge new merchant gas plants proposed for Charles City County will likely take their projects to some other state, if they pursue them at all.

Neither the 1,600 MW Chickahominy Power Station and the 1,050 C4GT plant a mile away planned to sell power to Virginia utilities; their target is the regional wholesale market, which currently rewards over-building of gas plant capacity even in the absence of demand. The Chickahominy and C4GT developers sought an exemption from RGGI through legislation; the bill passed the Senate but got shot down in the House.

If the C4GT plant goes away, so too should Virginia Natural Gas’ plans for a gas pipeline and compressor stations to supply the plant, the so-called Header Improvement Project.

Other coal plants will close. Although the CEA only requires Dominion to retire two coal units at its Chesterfield Power Station, other coal plants in the state will close by the end of this decade, too. That’s because the economics are so heavily against coal these days that it was just a matter of time before their owners moved to close them.

Adding the cost of carbon allowances under RGGI will speed the process along. That includes the Clover Station, which Dominion owns in partnership with Old Dominion Electric Cooperative (ODEC), and the Virginia City Hybrid Electric plant in Wise County, Dominion’s most expensive coal plant, which should never have been built. 

The Atlantic Coast and Mountain Valley Pipelines find themselves in more trouble than ever. If I had a dollar for every time a Dominion or Mountain Valley spokesperson said, “Our customers desperately need this pipeline,” I would not be worried about the stock market right now.

The fact is that no one was ever sure who those customers might be, other than affiliates of the pipeline owners themselves—and that doesn’t exactly answer the question. With Virginia now on a path away from all fossil fuels, neither pipeline has a path to profitability inside Virginia any longer, if they ever had one.

 

A version of this article originally appeared in the Virginia Mercury on March 31. 

It was a messy, chaotic General Assembly Session. It also worked out pretty well.

Solar arrays on Richmond Public Schools were some of the last projects to go forward before a statutory limit on PPAs halted similar projects across the state. Legislation this year raises the cap on PPAs. Photo credit Secure Futures.

This time last year, I didn’t have much good to say about the General Assembly session that had just concluded. This year, try as I might to be cynical and gloomy (and I do make a good effort), I see mostly blue skies. Or at worst, light gray. What follows is a brief run-down of the bills that passed.

Bills that were still alive at the time of my halftime report but that don’t appear in today’s roundup are dead for the year.

Most of these bills don’t yet have the Governor’s signature. Virginia allows the Governor to propose amendments, so what you see here may not be the final word. Bills that do get signed take effect July 1.

Energy Transition

HB1526/SB851, the Clean Economy Act, is an omnibus energy bill that contains a two-year moratorium on new fossil fuel plants, mandatory carbon reductions, mandatory energy efficiency savings, mandatory construction of wind, solar and offshore wind, mandatory energy storage acquisition targets, mandatory closures of some coal and biomass plants, and a mandatory renewable portfolio standard, along with cost recovery provisions, a new program to limit utility bills of low-income earners, and some loosening of restrictions on net metering and third-party power purchase agreements.

The bill is not perfect, and the clean energy transformation it strives for is incomplete. Its provisions mostly don’t apply to electric cooperatives, and while it forces the eventual closure of Dominion’s biomass plants, it actually requires utility customers to subsidize biomass use by paper companies. Dominion is given too free a rein on spending, the energy efficiency targets are weak, and the bill focuses on utility-scale projects to the almost total exclusion of customer-sited projects.

For all that, the legislation is groundbreaking and transformational. Advocates will be back next year with refinements to the bill and proposals to fill the gaps, but putting this necessary framework in place is a huge achievement for Virginia.

SB94 (Favola) and HB714 (Reid) rewrites the Commonwealth Energy Policy to bring it in line with Virginia’s commitment to dealing with climate change, and even to challenge leaders to do more. The bill sets a target for net-zero greenhouse gas emissions economy wide by 2045, and in the electric sector by 2040. These targets are more ambitious than what is in the Clean Economy Act; not only is the electric sector decarbonization deadline earlier (and inclusive of the coops), this is the first legislation to set a target for the economy as a whole. The Commonwealth Energy Policy is advisory and tends to be ignored in practice; however, the bill also requires that the Virginia Energy Plan, developed every four years in the first year of a new governor’s term, include actions to achieve a net-zero economy by 2045 for all sectors.

HB672 (Willett) establishes a policy “to prevent and minimize actions that contribute to the detrimental effects of anthropogenic climate change in the Commonwealth.” State agencies are directed to consider climate change in any actions involving state regulation or spending. Local and regional planning commissions are required to consider impacts from and causes of climate change in adapting comprehensive plans.

RGGI

The Democratic takeover of the General Assembly means Virginia will finally join the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI). HB981 (Herring) and SB1027 (Lewis), the Clean Energy and Community Flood Preparedness Act, directs DEQ to enter the RGGI auction market. Auction allowances are directed to funds for flood preparedness, energy efficiency and climate change planning and mitigation. As with the Clean Economy Act, votes for the RGGI fell along partisan lines but for one Republican senator, Jill Vogel, who voted for both.

RPS

The Clean Economy Act contains a mandatory renewable portfolio standard (RPS) requiring utilities to include in their electricity mix a percentage of renewable energy that ratchets up over time. It’s weak, especially for distributed solar, and it allows paper company biomass to qualify—an inexcusable corporate welfare provision for politically powerful WestRock and International Paper.

Customer-sited solar/net metering

Watch this space for a post dedicated to net metering, PPAs and community solar bills. Meanwhile, here’s the short version:

Solar Freedom SB710 (McClellan), HB572 (Keam) and HB1184 (Lopez) lift barriers to customer-sited renewable energy such as rooftop solar. HB1647 (Jones) contains some of the elements of Solar Freedom, but a few provisions are in conflict. Advocates have asked the Governor to sign the first three bills but not the fourth. Some Solar Freedom provisions are also in the Clean Economy Act. The new provisions lift the net metering cap to 6% for IOUs; raise the PPA cap to 1,000 MW in Dominion territory and 40 MW in APCo territory; remove standby charges below 15 kW in Dominion territory and completely for APCo; raise the residential size cap to 25 kW and the commercial project size cap to 3 MW; allow Dominion customers to install enough solar to meet 150% of the previous year’s demand (APCo stays at 100%); allow shared solar on multifamily buildings; and enable a 5 MW landfill solar project in Fairfax County to move forward. The provisions do not apply to electric cooperatives.

HOAs HB414 (Delaney) and SB504 (Petersen) clarifies the respective rights of homeowners associations (HOAs) and residents who want to install solar. The law allows HOAs to impose “reasonable restrictions,” a term some HOAs have used to restrict solar to rear-facing roofs regardless of whether these get sunshine. The bill clarifies that HOA restrictions may not increase the cost of the solar facility by more than 5%, or decrease the expected output by more than 10%.

Community solar

SB629 (Surovell) and HB1634 (Jones) creates a program for shared-solar that allows customers to purchase subscriptions in a solar facility no greater than 5 MW.

HB573 (Keam) requires that an investor-owned utility that offers a so-called “community solar” program as authorized by 2017 legislation must include facilities in low-income communities “of which the pilot program costs equal or exceed the pilot program costs of the eligible generating facility that is located outside a low-income community.”

Offshore wind

The Clean Economy Act contains detailed provisions for the buildout and acquisition of offshore wind. SB998 (Lucas), SB860 (Mason) and HB1664 (Hayes) puts the construction or purchase of at least 5,200 MW of offshore wind in the public interest and governs cost recovery for the wind farms under development by Dominion. The bills appear to have the same language that is in the Clean Economy Act.

HB234 (Mugler) establishes a Division of Offshore Wind within the Department of Mines, Minerals and Energy. Its role is to help facilitate the Hampton Roads region as a wind industry hub, coordinate the word of state agencies, develop a stakeholder engagement strategy, and basically make sure this industry gets underway.

Nuclear

SB828 (Lewis) defines “clean” and “carbon-free” energy to include nuclear energy for purposes of the Code. SB817 (Lewis) declares that nuclear energy is considered a clean energy source for purposes of the Commonwealth Energy Policy.

HB1303 (Hurst) and SB549 (Newman) direct DMME to develop a strategic plan for the role of nuclear energy in moving toward renewable and carbon-free energy.

Energy Efficiency

HB1526/SB851, the Clean Economy Act, contains a mandatory energy efficiency resource standard (EERS) and other provisions for spending on low-income EE programs. HB1450 (Sullivan) appears to be the same as the efficiency provisions of the Clean Economy Act. A sentence added late in the process provides that the bill won’t take effect until passed again in 2021. Presumably the passage of the Clean Economy Act makes this bill moot.

HB981 (the RGGI bill) specifies that a portion of the funds raised by auctioning carbon allowances will fund efficiency programs.

HB1576 (Kilgore) makes it harder for large customers to avoid paying for utility efficiency programs. In the past, customers with over 500 kW of demand were exempt; this bill allows only customers with more than 1 MW of demand to opt out, and only if the customer demonstrates that it has implemented its own energy efficiency measures.

HB575 (Keam) beefs up the stakeholder process that Dominion and APCo engage in for the development of energy efficiency programs.

SB963 (Surovell) establishes the Commonwealth Efficient and Resilient Buildings Board to advise the Governor and state agencies about ways to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and increase resiliency. Every agency is required to designate and energy manager responsible for improving energy efficiency and reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

SB628 (Surovell) requires the residential property disclosure statement provided by the Real Estate Board on its website to include advice that purchasers should obtain a residential building energy analysis as well as a home inspection prior to settlement.

Energy storage

The Clean Economy Act requires that by 2035, Appalachian Power will construct 400 MW of energy storage and Dominion 2,700 MW. None of the projects can exceed 500 MW, except for one project of up to 800 MW for Dominion (a possible reference to the pumped storage project Dominion is reportedly considering). Projects must meet competitive procurement requirements, and at least 35% of projects must be developed by third-party developers.

SB632 (Surovell) has a fair amount of overlap with the Clean Economy Act, but the details are different, and it will be interesting to see what the Governor does about that. SB632 makes it in the public interest to develop 2,700 MW of energy storage located in Virginia by 2030. At least 65% must take the form of a “purchase by a public utility of energy storage facilities owned by persons other than a public utility or the capacity from such facilities.” Up to 25% of facilities do not have to satisfy price competitiveness criteria “if the selection of the energy storage facilities materially advances non-price criteria, including favoring geographic distribution of generating facilities, areas of higher employment, or regional economic development.” Utility Integrated Resource Plans must include the use of energy storage and must include “a long-term plan to integrate new energy storage facilities into existing generation and distribution assets to assist with grid transformation.”

SB632 also fixes a problem introduced a couple of years ago, when the ownership or operation of storage facilities was added to the definition of a utility in one chapter of the Code (§56.265.1), though not in others. With the fix, a public utility may own or operate storage, but so can third parties without them thereby becoming utilities.

HB1183 (Lopez) requires the SCC to establish a task force on bulk energy storage resources.

Siting, permitting, and other issues with utility-scale renewable energy 

HB1327 (Austin) allows localities to impose property taxes on generating equipment of electric suppliers utilizing wind turbines at a rate that exceeds the locality’s real estate tax rate by up to $0.20 per $100 of assessed value. Under current law, the tax may exceed the real estate rate but cannot exceed the general personal property tax rate in the locality.

HB656 (Heretick) and SB875 (Marsden) allow (but do not require) local governments to incorporate into their zoning ordinances national best practices standards for solar PV and batteries.

HB1131 (Jones) and SB762 (Barker) authorize localities to assess a revenue share of up to $1,400 per megawatt on solar PV projects, in exchange for which an existing tax exemption is expanded.

HB657 (Heretick) exempts solar facilities of 150 MW or less from the requirement that they be reviewed for substantial accord with local comprehensive plans, if the locality waives the requirement.

HB1434 (Jones) and SB763 (Barker) provides a step-down of the existing 80% machinery and tools tax exemption for large solar projects, and eliminates it after 2030 for projects over 5 MW.

SB870 (Marsden) authorizes local planning commissions to grant special exceptions for solar PV projects in their zoning ordinances and include certain regulations and provisions for conditional zoning for solar projects.

HB1675 (Hodges) requires anyone wanting to locate a renewable energy or storage facility in an opportunity zone to execute a siting agreement with the locality.

Grants, tax deductions, tax credits and other financing

HB654 (Guy) authorizes DMME to sponsor a statewide financing program for commercial solar, energy efficiency and stormwater investments. The effect would be to boost the availability of Commercial Property Assessed Clean Energy (C-PACE) in areas of the state where the locality has not developed a program of its own.

SB754 (Marsden) authorizes electric cooperatives to establish on-bill financing programs for energy efficiency and renewable energy.

HB1656 (O’Quinn) authorizes Dominion and APCo to design incentives for low-income people, the elderly, and disable persons to install energy efficiency and renewable energy, to be paid for by a rate adjustment clause.

HB1707 (Aird) makes changes to the Clean Energy Advisory Board, which is (already) authorized to administer public grant funding.

SB1039 (Vogel) allows a real property tax exemption for solar energy equipment to be applied retroactively if the taxpayer gets DEQ certification within a year.

SB542 (Edwards) repeals the sunset date on crowdfunding provisions and provides fixes for certain existing obstacles to this financing approach.

Customer rights to shop for renewable energy

HB868 (Bourne) allows customers to buy 100% renewable energy from any licensed supplier, regardless of whether their own utility has its own approved tariff. The Senate killed a companion bill, and Commerce and Labor passed HB868 only with an amendment that requires the bill to be reenacted in 2021. (Credit Edwards, Deeds, Ebbin and Bell for not going along with the amendment.) After Senate passage the bill went to conference, and the House conferees caved. So technically the bill passed, but it has no effect. Interesting note: 41 House Republicans still voted against it in the end.

HB 889 (Mullin) was originally broader than HB868, but after the Senate got through with it, the bill is now a pilot program for the benefit of just those large corporations that, as of February 25, 2019, had filed applications seeking to aggregate their load in order to leave Dominion and buy renewable energy elsewhere. The pilot program is capped at 200 MW, and the SCC will review it in 2022.

Other utility regulation

HB528 (Subramanyam) requires the SCC to determine the amortization period for recovery of costs due to the early retirement of generating facilities owned or operated by investor-owned utilities. In the absence of this legislation, Dominion would have been allowed to use excess earnings for immediate payoffs of the costs of early fossil fuel plant closures; this puts the SCC back in charge of the schedule. The fact that this bill passed is nothing short of miraculous. House Republicans voted against it en masse, and it made it through Senate Commerce and Labor over the objections of Dominion’s best friends from both parties (though most came around for the floor vote when it was clear it would pass).

SB731 (McClellan) affects a utility’s rate of return. The SCC determines this rate by looking first at the average returns of peer group utilities, and then often going higher. The bill lowers the maximum level that the SCC can set above the peer group average. Note that although this bill is recorded as having passed both chambers, it looks like there were amendments that do not appear on the Legislative Information Service website.

HB167 (Ware) requires an electric utility that wants to charge customers for the cost of using a new gas pipeline to prove it can’t meet its needs otherwise, and that the new pipeline provides the lowest-cost option available to it. (Note that this cost recovery review typically happens after the fact, i.e., once a pipeline has been built and placed into service.) Ware acceded to some amendments that Dominion wanted, and eventually Dominion told legislators the company was not opposed to the bill. Hence it passed both chambers unanimously. Notwithstanding Dominion’s happy talk, this bill makes cost recovery for the Atlantic Coast Pipeline much, much more difficult, one more indication that Dominion may be preparing to fold up shop on this project.

[Updated March 17 to correct an error–I had included a bill as having passed that in fact died in the House. Bummer.]

Yeah, I’m not perfect either. Pass the Clean Economy Act.

People gathered with signs supporting climate action

Grassroots activists gather at the steps of the Virginia Capital on January 14. Photo courtesy Sierra Club.

When it was first introduced, and before the utilities and special interests got their grubby little paws on it, the Clean Economy Act was an ambitious and far-reaching overhaul of Virginia energy policy that turned a little timid when it came to particulars.

Sausage-making ensued.

The bill that emerged from the grinder inevitably allows Dominion Energy to profit more than it should. (Welcome to Virginia, newcomers.) The energy efficiency provisions, which I thought weak, became even weaker, then became stronger, then ended up somewhere in the middle depending on whether you were looking at the House or Senate version. The renewable portfolio standard, complicated to begin with, is now convoluted to the point of farce — and to the extent I understand it, I’m not laughing.

Yet the bill still does what climate advocates set out to do: It creates a sturdy framework for a transition to 100% carbon-free electricity by 2045 (the House bill) or 2050 (the Senate bill).

It’s worth taking a moment to marvel at the very idea of a strong energy transition bill passing in a state that still subsidizes coal mining. Even a year ago, this would not have been possible. That we have come this far is a tribute not just to the Democrats who are making good on their pledge to tackle climate, but to the thousands of grassroots activists who worked to elect them and then stayed on the job to hold them to their promises.

The Clean Economy Act works by tackling the problem from multiple directions in a belt-and-suspenders approach:

• The legislation puts an immediate two-year moratorium on any new carbon-emitting plants. The concept came straight from the grassroots-led Green New Deal, and it creates space for the other provisions to kick in.

• It requires DEQ to implement regulations cutting carbon emissions through participation in the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative. RGGI uses market incentives to cut carbon emissions from power plants 30 percent by 2030. The Department of Environmental Quality will auction carbon allowances to power plant owners and use the auction money primarily for coastal resilience projects and energy efficiency projects for low-income residents. The Department of Housing and Community Development will be in charge of this efficiency spending, not Dominion.

• The Clean Economy Act takes RGGI out further, ensuring that Virginia reaches zero emissions by 2045 (House bill) or 2050 (Senate bill).

• It requires the closure of most coal plants in Virginia by the end of 2024. The newest of these, the Virginia City Hybrid coal plant, must close by the end of 2030 unless it achieves 83 percent emission reductions through carbon capture and storage, the technology it was allegedly designed for. Biomass plants have to close by the end of 2028.

• In place of fossil fuels, utilities have to build or buy thousands of megawatts of solar, on-shore wind, offshore wind and energy storage. Yearly solicitations for wind and solar will ensure sustained job creation employing thousands of workers. Thirty-five percent of all this must be competitively procured from third-party developers, a requirement that lowers costs and makes it harder for utilities to overcharge for the projects they build themselves.

• The storage requirement in particular is notable because batteries compete directly with gas combustion turbines to serve peak demand. The more storage a utility builds, the weaker its case for building new gas peakers becomes.

• For the first time, Virginia utilities will have to achieve energy efficiency savings, not just throw money at the problem. Under the stronger House bill, Dominion must achieve 5 percent cumulative energy savings by 2025. Appalachian Power must achieve 2 percent. Starting in 2026, the SCC will set efficiency goals every three years. Achieving savings ought to be easy; a new ranking of progress on efficiency puts Dominion at 50th out of 52 utilities. Low-hanging fruit, anyone? The Clean Economy Act also calls for 15 percent of efficiency spending to be allocated for programs benefiting low-income, elderly, disabled individuals and veterans.

• Also for the first time, the legislation requires the State Corporation Commission to consider the “social cost of carbon.” That puts one more thumb on the scales weighing against fossil fuels.

• If by January of 2028 we are still not on track, the House bill empowers the secretaries of natural resources and commerce and trade to put a second moratorium on new fossil fuel facilities.

One other element of the bill is worth mentioning, given the questions about how much all these new projects and programs will cost. The legislation creates a “percentage of income payment program” for low-income ratepayers to cap electricity costs at 6 percent of household income, or 10 percent if they use electric heat. The program includes provisions for home energy audits and retrofits.

As I said at the outset, the bill is not without its flaws. The cost of offshore wind energy is “capped” in the bill at 1.6 times the cost of energy from a gas peaker plant, though I’m told negotiations continue and the adder may be reduced. Regardless of the number, this makes as much sense as capping the cost of apples at some number above the cost of Cheetos. Why are we comparing a carbon-free source of energy that is getting cheaper every year with one of the dirtiest and most expensive fossil fuel sources? On behalf of the offshore wind industry: Please, I’m insulted.

Virginia will be a leader on offshore wind, but we are not the first, and we know the price of electricity from the other U.S. projects already under contract. Prices are already well below gas peaker plant levels. The CEA ought to cap the cost of the Virginia project at 10 or 20 percent above the lowest-priced comparable offshore wind project, which would allow plenty of room for differences in wind speeds, distance from shore and other variables.

On second thought, as a point of pride, Dominion should reject any adder at all, and insist on capping its costs below those of all the northeastern projects. Have some confidence in yourselves, people!

My other complaint is that the Clean Economy Act’s nearly incomprehensible renewable portfolio standard fails to deliver. Yes, other provisions of the bill require the utilities to build a lot of wind and solar. But nothing requires them to use the renewable energy certificates (RECs) associated with those facilities for the RPS.

If I totally lost you with those acronyms, it’s okay. Just know that RECs are the bragging rights associated with renewable energy, and they can be bought and sold separately from the electricity itself. If Dominion builds a solar farm in Virginia and sells the RECs to Microsoft or the good people of New Jersey, those folks have bought the right to claim the renewable energy regardless of whether they actually get their electrons straight from the solar farm. Virginia would be left with a solar farm, but legally, no solar energy.

RECs also fetch different prices according to the kind of renewable energy they represent and how many are on the market. Everyone wants solar, so solar RECs cost more. RECs from hundred-year-old hydroelectric projects are not in demand, so they are cheap.

As written now, the Clean Economy Act sets up an RPS that doesn’t require any wind or solar RECs at all (excepting a miniscule carve-out for small wind and solar that can also be met with “anaerobic digestion resources,” possibly a reference to pig manure).

The RPS can be met with RECs from several sources less desirable than solar, and therefore cheaper. These include old hydro dams, Virginia-based waste-to-energy and landfill methane facilities and biomass burned by paper companies WestRock and International Paper. As a result, utilities will buy RECs from those sources to meet the requirements.

Only once utilities run out of cheaper RECs from eligible sources will they be forced to apply RECs from any of the wind and solar they are building. Until that time, Dominion and APCo will sell the RECs from the new solar farms to the highest bidder, while Virginia customers shell out potentially hundreds of millions of dollars for RECs no one really wants.

That’s not fair to the Virginians who are paying for the wind and solar projects to be built and who have a right to expect wind and solar will be a part of their energy supply as a result. Legislators can correct this with a very simple requirement that RECs from the new facilities mandated by the law be applied to the RPS.

And, while I am telling legislators what to do, they ought to remove the eligibility of paper company biomass. This provision seems to have been added to the bill (in obscure, coded language) simply because WestRock has talented lobbyists and the political power to demand a cut of the action. But do we ratepayers want to buy their RECs? No, we do not.

WestRock is doubtless unhappy about losing the nice stream of unearned income it’s been getting from selling thermal RECs to Dominion under Virginia’s voluntary RPS. But there is no good reason for electricity customers to subsidize a Fortune 500 corporation whose CEO earned $18 million last year and whose Covington mill, according to EPA data, spews out more toxic air emissions than any other facility in Virginia including Dominion’s Chesterfield coal plant. That’s not clean energy.

Fortunately (I guess), the RPS is not the heart and soul of the Clean Economy Act. For the next several years, its slow ramp-up makes it barely even relevant, and it is the next several years that matter most in our response to the climate crisis.

Joining RGGI, cutting emissions, implementing energy efficiency, building renewable energy and storage, closing coal and biomass plants: those are the mechanisms of the Clean Economy Act that will drive Virginia’s transition to 100% clean energy.

And so, having offered my helpful suggestions to improve the nutritional content of this sausage, I will add just one more thing:

Pass the bill.

This column originally ran in the Virginia Mercury on February 24, 2020. That afternoon, the Senate Commerce and Labor committee conformed the House version of the bill to the weaker Senate version and passed it out of committee. House Labor and Commerce meets today and is expected to conform the Senate bill to the stronger House language. Assuming both chambers pass the bills without further amendments, the bills will then go to a conference committee (three senators, three delegates) to resolve the differences, and the resulting language will go to the Governor. 

The bill roundup continues: climate, energy transition, and other utility regulation

Young woman holding sign that says Climate Action Now

An activist at the Clean Energy Lobby Day on January 14. Photo by Alex Kambis.

If you need evidence that Virginia legislators finally recognize global warming as a crisis, you could simply look at this year’s plethora of bills addressing coastal flooding and resilience. We’ve barely begun to address the greenhouse gas pollution that drives climate change and sea level rise, but already Virginia has entered the age of adaptation.

Meanwhile, however, the need for mitigation measures is more pressing than ever. The new Democratic majority has responded with a long list of bills that address the problem in various ways: by joining the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI), requiring energy efficiency and renewable energy investments, offering incentives for private investments, lowering barriers to investments, or all of the above.

In an earlier post I described two omnibus energy transition bills, the Clean Economy Act, HB1526 (Sullivan) and SB851 (McClellan), and the Green New Deal Act, HB77 (Rasoul). A second post brought together all the renewable energy bills.

Now I’m moving on to the rest of the climate policy bills, as well as other utility regulation.

Climate and energy policy

 SB94 (Favola) rewrites the Commonwealth Energy Policy to bring it in line with Virginia’s commitment to dealing with climate change. The latest draft of the bill, as it passed out of subcommittee, sets a target for net-zero greenhouse gas emissions economy wide by 2045, and in the electric sector by 2040. This section of the Code is for the most part merely advisory; nonetheless, it is interesting that Dominion Energy Virginia supported the bill in subcommittee. [Update: the bill, with further amendments, passed out of Commerce & Labor on January 20 and now goes to the Senate floor.]

Delegate Reid’s HB714 is similar to SB94 but contains added details, some of which have now been incorporated into SB94.

HB672 (Willett) establishes a policy “to prevent and minimize actions that contribute to the detrimental effects of anthropogenic climate change in the Commonwealth.” State agencies are directed to consider climate change in any actions involving state regulation or spending. Local and regional planning commissions are required to consider impacts from and causes of climate change in adapting comprehensive plans.

HB525 (Subrmanyam and Reid) require a statewide greenhouse gas inventory covering all sectors of the economy.

HB547 (Delaney) establishes the Virginia Energy and Economy Transition Council to develop plans to assist the Commonwealth in transitioning from the use of fossil fuel energy to renewable energy by 2050. The Council is to include members from labor and environmental groups.

Meanwhile, efforts are already underway to undercut the effectiveness of all this great policy work. Witness the latest strategy from Dominion, involving a pair of bills put forward by Senator Lewis. SB828 and SB817 declare that any time the Code or the Energy Policy refers to “clean” or “carbon-free” energy, it must be read to include nuclear energy. In subcommittee, Senator Lewis suddenly announced he was amending the bills to add “sustainable biomass” as well, turning the bills into a mockery of science and the English language, not to mention terrible policy.

Biomass—that is, burning wood—causes more pollution than coal, it emits more carbon than coal, and it isn’t carbon neutral in the timeframe that matters to climate. Oh, and it’s very expensive energy. Insisting that the words “clean” and “carbon-free” include biomass is like saying the color blue includes the color yellow. It just doesn’t.

[Update 1/22: Both bills passed out of subcommittee, but in full committee, Lewis appears to have presented the unamended SB817, with no biomass language. It sailed through and now goes to the Senate floor. Lewis then presented additional amendments to SB828 to limit biomass to “sustainable residual” biomass, but then asked to have his bill passed by for the day instead of having it voted on. The amendments are not yet available on the LIS.]

RGGI bills (good and bad)

The Democratic takeover of the General Assembly means Virginia will finally join the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI), either according to the regulations written by DEQ or with a system in place that raises money from auctioning carbon allowances.

HB981 (Herring) and SB1027 (Lewis) is called the Clean Energy and Community Flood Preparedness Act. It implements the DEQ carbon regulations and directs DEQ to enter the RGGI auction market. Auction allowances are directed to funds for flood preparedness, energy efficiency and climate change planning and mitigation. We are told this is the Administration’s bill. A similar bill, HB20 (Lindsey), is not expected to move forward.

HB110 (Ware) says that if Virginia joins RGGI, DEQ must give free carbon allowances to any facility with a long-term contract predating May 17, 2017 that doesn’t allow recovery of compliance costs. Rumor has it the bill was written to benefit one particular company.

SB992 (Spruill) requires the Air Board to give free allowances for three years to any new power plant that was permitted before June 26, 2019, the effective date of the carbon trading regulations. It’s not clear why new facilities should get special treatment; it was not exactly a secret that these regulations were in the works. And the result of this law would be to encourage companies to go ahead and build anything that has a permit, which just can’t be a good result.

HB1628 (Poindexter) prohibits the state from joining RGGI or adopting any carbon dioxide cap-and-trade program without approval from the General Assembly.

Other utility regulation

“Other” makes this section sound like an afterthought, but in fact several of the most impactful bills of the session appear here.

HB1677 (Keam) replaces Virginia’s current vertically-integrated monopoly structure with one based on competition and consumer choice. Existing monopoly utilities would be required to choose between becoming sellers of energy in competition with other retail sellers, or divesting themselves of their generation portfolios and retaining ownership and operation of just the distribution system. Other features: a nonprofit independent entity to coordinate operation of the distribution system; performance-based regulation to reward distribution companies for reliable service; consumer choices of suppliers, including renewable energy suppliers; an energy efficiency standard; a low-income bill assistance program; and consumer protections and education on energy choices.

HB206 (Ware) is, I’m told, the beta version of Delegate Keam’s bill and will be pulled, and that Delegate Ware is on board with HB1677.

HB528 (Subramanyam) requires the SCC to decide when utilities should retire fossil fuel generation.

SB842 (Petersen) seeks to achieve the same end as the House bills, but it puts the SCC in charge of writing the plan. The bill provides for all retail customers of electricity to be able to choose their supplier, and instructs the SCC to promulgate regulations for a transition to a competitive market for electricity. Existing utilities will continue to provide the distribution service. The bill also requires suppliers of electricity to obtain at least 25% of sales from renewable energy by 2025, 50% by 2030, and 100% by 2050. Renewable energy is defined to include “sustainable biomass” but not waste incineration or landfill gas.

Not ready to bust up the monopolies yet? How about at least putting the SCC back in control? The last few years have seen a steady chipping away of the SCC’s authority to regulate utility rates. HB1132 (Jones, Ware) seeks to reverse this trend and possibly get some rate relief for consumers.

SB731 (McClellan) also affects rates, in this case by addressing a utility’s rate of return. The SCC determines this rate by looking first at the average returns of peer group utilities, and then often going higher. The bill lowers the maximum level that the SCC can set above the peer group average.

And finally (but by no means least), HB167 (Ware) requires an electric utility that wants to charge customers for the cost of using a new gas pipeline to prove it can’t meet its needs otherwise, and that the new pipeline provides the lowest-cost option available to it. (Note that this cost recovery review typically happens after the fact, i.e., once a pipeline has been built and placed into service.) Last year Ware carried a similar bill that passed the House in the face of frantic opposition from Dominion Energy, before being killed in Senate Commerce and Labor.

Energy efficiency in Virginia: talking big while headed the wrong way

map of US shows changes in retail sales of electricity in each state

Data from the Energy Information Agency shows Virginia retail electricity sales increased by 2% year over year, one of the largest increases in the country. Nationwide, electricity sales declined slightly on average.

There’s bad news for Virginians looking to reduce our dependence on fossil fuels: The job just got 2% harder.

That’s the percentage increase in electricity use in Virginia over the past year, according to data from the U.S. Energy Information Agency (EIA).

The increase was driven by the continuation of a three-year upward trend in the commercial sector. (My guess is it’s those data centers.) The somewhat better news is that residential use has stayed basically flat for 10 years.

The thing is, we would expect a 2% decrease in electricity demand every year, if we were among the states with the strongest energy efficiency programs. Needless to say, Virginia is not among them.

Virginia consumers share in the benefits of federal energy-saving programs for lighting, appliances and other equipment (advances that are now under attack from the Trump administration). These national standards, pretty much painless for consumers, have kept residential electricity usage from growing even as the population grows.

Yet Virginia makes little effort to build on these savings, and it shows. The American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy ranks Virginia 29th in the nation overall in its 2019 State Energy Efficiency Scorecard; in the narrower category of electricity savings, Virginia came in a dismal 47th.

This should concern policy-makers, not least because wasting energy costs money. Recent EIA data reveals that in spite of Virginia having slightly lower electricity rates than the U.S. average, our residential bills are almost $20 per month higher, continuing a long and, especially for low-income residents, painful trend. Virginia residents use more electricity per household than any other state in the nation with the exception of just six southern states (Alabama, Kentucky, Mississippi, Tennessee, Louisiana and Texas).

Lobbyists for our utilities argue it’s the weather here. They say hot summers drive up the use of air conditioning, while cold winters keep electric heat pumps running. We’d like to see their data. The fact is, Virginia residents use more electricity (averaging 1165 kWh per month) and have higher bills (averaging $136.59) than residents of Maryland (1005 kWh, $133.68) and Delaware (977 kWh, $122.43), even though both of those states don’t just have colder winters, they have slightly warmer summers as well.

So if it isn’t weather, what is it? Policy. Both Maryland and Delaware have laws requiring reductions in energy consumption and have programs to make it happen.

It’s worth mentioning that Maryland and Delaware are members of the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, the carbon-cutting compact of northeastern states that Virginia plans to join. Critics of the plan claim it will harm Virginia consumers. That makes it especially telling that of all the RGGI states, only Connecticut has higher residential electricity bills than Virginia.

Most RGGI states appear in the top ranks of the ACEEE scorecard. That’s not a coincidence; those states use money from the auctioning of carbon emission allowances to fund energy efficiency programs. Consumers benefit from the resulting trade-off: their electricity rates go up, but their bills go down.

Shrinking a state’s carbon footprint and reducing reliance on fossil fuels are prime objectives of energy efficiency in the RGGI states, but the lower bills give success that sweet taste that keeps them coming back for more.

Virginia has tackled energy efficiency in fits and starts over the years, with limited programs that tend to expire before they gain traction. That’s supposed to change now with implementation of 2018’s Grid Transformation and Security Act (GTSA). The GTSA requires Dominion Energy Virginia and Appalachian Power together to propose a billion dollars’ worth of energy efficiency programs over 10 years. The State Corporation Commission approved one round of spending from Dominion in May of this year.

The problem is that the GTSA only requires utilities to propose programs; it doesn’t say the programs have to be good ones, and it doesn’t require the SCC to approve them. Even the ongoing participation of a stakeholder group doesn’t change the fact that, as ever, the utilities are in the driver’s seat.

Since they’re spending their customers’ money, Dominion and APCo are happy with this set-up. Alas, they don’t have much incentive to produce really great programs. Quite the reverse: their business model depends on an ever-increasing demand for electricity. Successful energy efficiency programs are bad for business.

By contrast, the states at the top of the ACEEE scorecard all have laws called energy efficiency resource standards (EERS) that require utilities to achieve savings, not just spend money, or that take the job away from utilities entirely and entrust it to a separate entity without a conflict of interest.

More than half of states now have EERS, though not all target—or achieve—energy savings of 2% per year.

How does a good EERS work its magic? As ACEEE explains:

“In states ramping up funding in response to aggressive EERS policies, programs typically shift focus from widget-based approaches (e.g., installing new, more-efficient water heaters) to comprehensive deep-savings approaches that seek to generate greater energy efficiency savings per program participant by conducting whole-building or system retrofits.”

Some deep-savings approaches also draw on complementary efficiency efforts, such as utility support for full implementation of building energy codes. Deep-savings approaches may also promote whole-building retrofits, grid-interactive efficient buildings and comprehensive changes in systems and operations by including behavioral elements that empower customers.

The good news for Virginia is that, having failed to do much of anything on energy efficiency for all these years, we have a lot of low-hanging fruit. The GTSA can’t help but gather up some of it; a real EERS could do much more and at lower expense. We could also follow the lead of other states in adopting state-level appliance efficiency standards, tightening our building codes and allowing localities to go beyond state codes in their jurisdictions.

More and more, Virginia legislators accept the urgency of the climate crisis and the need to transition to renewable energy. It’s a job that requires lowering energy consumption as well as building wind and solar, and we can’t afford to do it wrong. Two years ago, most legislators settled for the flawed approach of the GTSA. In 2020, we should expect them to do better.

After all, to paraphrase Winston Churchill, you can always count on the General Assembly to do the right thing after they have tried everything else.

 

A version of this article appeared in the Virginia Mercury on October 11, 2019. 

As Virginia prepares to join carbon-trading states, arguments erupt over the price of admission

photo courtesy of the Sierra Club

Virginia won’t enter the nine-state carbon emissions trading program known as the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative until 2020 under regulations being finalized by the state, but debate about how much it might cost utility ratepayers is already heating up.

Estimates range from little or no cost — or even a cost savings — to as high as $12 per month for the average household, depending on who is doing the calculations and the assumptions they make.

An Associated Press article reports that State Corporation Commission staff testified before a legislative committee that joining RGGI via the Virginia Coastal Protection Act, SB 1666 and HB 2735, would cost Virginia households an added $7-12 per month. The Northam administration disputed the SCC figure, saying the true cost would be about a dollar per month.

Republicans killed the bill in both the Senate and House committees that day.

A few days later, the anti-RGGI bill, HB 2611 (Poindexter), sailed through the House on a party-line vote. It would prevent Virginia from participating in RGGI or any other carbon-reduction regimen. If it also passes the Senate in coming weeks, it faces certain veto by the governor.

So is joining RGGI an inexpensive way to incentivize utilities to save energy and lower carbon emissions, or will it pile costs onto customers?

RGGI, for those of you who need a quick brush-up on your carbon policies, is a cooperative, market-based effort that has been running in New England and the Mid-Atlantic states as far south as Maryland for the past decade.

It works by auctioning carbon pollution allowances to major emitters, gradually ratcheting down the number of allowances made available each year to incentivize conservation and the use of lower-carbon fuels. States use the money they raise to fund energy efficiency, community solar, weatherization and other programs, often focusing especially on low-income residents.

First things first: RGGI works.

According to a 2018 report by Analysis Group, the RGGI region has met its targets, and benefited economically as well:

“Over three years (2015-2017), the RGGI program led to $1.4 billion (net present value) of net positive economic activity in the nine-state region,” the report says. “Each RGGI state’s electricity consumers and local economy also experienced net benefits from the RGGI program. When spread across the region’s population, these economic impacts amount to nearly $34 in net positive value added per capita.”

Virginia’s carbon reduction plan, now in the final stages of drafting at DEQ, will have Virginia participate in the RGGI auctions but not raise money from auctioning allowances.

Beginning in 2020, RGGI will add Virginia carbon emissions (28 million tons, the baseline DEQ has chosen) to the total for the existing members (56 million tons), and our utilities will bid for and trade allowances with the utilities in the other nine states.

But unlike the existing RGGI states, under DEQ’s plan Virginia will distribute its share of carbon allowances to our utilities at no cost, based on their previous year’s electricity sales. Utilities will sell the allowances into the RGGI auction bucket and buy back as many as they need. Initially, at least, the effect on ratepayers should be pretty much a wash.

Chris Bast, chief deputy at the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality said DEQ’s modeling program estimated rates would increase about 1 percent as a result of the new regulations. That’s a much lower figure than the $7 per month the SCC estimated the program would cost even with free allowances.

State Corporation Commission spokesman Ken Schrad said the DEQ “has understated the price of carbon emissions and understated Dominion’s cost of money for future capital investments (borrowed from lenders or invested by shareholders).”

“DEQ modeled Dominion as if it was a deregulated utility in a competitive market,” Schrad said. “Dominion’s fossil fuel generating units must be paid for in rates regardless of whether they are generating electricity under its vertically integrated structure.”

Bast takes issue with this. “I don’t know where the SCC got its numbers,” Bast told me. “Many folks, including the DEQ, have done extensive modeling to determine the environmental and economic impacts of the rule. That modeling is part of the public record and is part of the extensive public process that has gone into crafting this regulation. The SCC’s analysis is an outlier by several orders of magnitude – nearly 600%. The SCC has not provided any comment about ratepayer impact during any of our regulatory proceedings.

“We’re simply asking the SCC to show their work. But, to date, they have refused to provide us with the analysis that supports their conclusions.”

Bast says DEQ has not modeled what the program would cost if utilities had to pay for allowances, as contemplated under the Coastal Protection Act. Paying for allowances, according to the SCC, could drive costs up by an additional $5 per month.

This is a moot point, for now, since the Coastal Protection Act did not pass. But advocates believe that auctioning allowances offers an opportunity to raise funds to invest in energy efficiency and climate programs, so the idea remains on everyone’s radar for next year.

How RGGI works:

Under the Coastal Protection Act, auction proceeds would go into the state’s coffers to fund energy efficiency and resiliency programs that benefit the public. Utilities would be able to recover the costs of buying allowances from their customers, so there would be more impact on rates than there would be if allowances are free.

The Coastal Protection Act takes an extra step and actually requires investor-owned utilities to build wind and solar to achieve at least 50 percent of the required emissions reduction. If that amount were to exceed what they planned to build anyway, it would mean more costs paid for by customers—though maybe not a lot, if it speeds up the retirement of old fossil fuel plants that ought to close anyway.

RGGI reduces carbon emissions over time by gradually decreasing the number of auction allowances available in the region year after year. As the carbon cap tightens, either allowances become more expensive, or utilities reduce emissions, or both.

So far the RGGI states have succeeded in reducing emissions without higher allowance prices. They have done this in large part by closing coal plants and investing in energy efficiency and renewable energy, including programs paid for by auctioning the carbon emissions allowances.

Most RGGI states also have mandates for efficiency and renewable energy, which Virginia lacks. (In spite of the hoopla around it, last year’s “grid mod” bill did not require utilities to achieve any specific efficiency or renewable energy outcomes.) The combined effect of all these actions is that the prices paid for auction allowances in RGGI have stayed low.

According to the Analysis Group, consumers in RGGI states have benefited:

“On the one hand, the inclusion of the cost of CO2 allowances in wholesale prices tends to increase wholesale electricity prices in the RGGI region at the beginning of the 2015-2017 period,” the report says.

“But these near-term impacts are more than offset during these years and beyond, because the states invest a substantial amount of the RGGI auction proceeds on energy efficiency programs that reduce overall electricity consumption and on renewable energy projects that reduce the use of higher-priced power plants. Consumers gain because their overall electricity bills go down.

“Since RGGI’s commencement in 2009, energy and dollar savings resulting from all states’ investments in energy efficiency and renewable energy has more than offset the wholesale market price increases associated with inclusion of allowance costs in market bids.”

Virginia is as well-positioned as any of the RGGI states to meet the carbon-reduction goals.

Utilities can reduce energy demand through energy efficiency, resulting in less need for carbon-emitting fuel to be burned. They can also replace coal-fired generation with power from gas (with about half the CO2 of coal) or renewables (zero C02 for wind, water and solar; biomass has CO2 emissions as high as coal, but decision-makers pretend it’s carbon neutral).

Our nuclear plants, which provide a big chunk of Virginia’s electricity, are already operating at full capacity, and that’s not expected to change.

Intuitively, the solutions wouldn’t be expected to cost very much. Some of Virginia’s coal plants aren’t running very much these days anyway, putting them precariously close to the point where it is cheaper to close them than keep paying to have them available. As for alternatives, Dominion says solar is the cheapest form of new energy.

And energy efficiency is, famously, the lowest-cost energy resource, and vastly underutilized in Virginia.

In fact, projections have Dominion coming in under the RGGI cap for at least several years, putting our utilities in the happy (for them) position of possibly making money in the auctions.

But that doesn’t quite settle the matter.

There is one other consideration that could affect rates: Virginia utilities participate in the regional transmission organization known as PJM, which runs the wholesale power market. Anything that makes Virginia power more expensive makes it less attractive to the market.

That is surely part of the SCC staff’s concern.

To understand this dynamic, I consulted economist Bill Shobe, a professor at the Center for Economic and Policy Studies at the Weldon Cooper Center for Public Service at the University of Virginia, who studies carbon markets.

Shobe said that if Virginia utilities get CO2 allowances for free based on their previous year’s electricity generation, as the DEQ plan calls for, there should be no impact on their power plants’ competitiveness in PJM. The cost to customers would be little or nothing.

But if a coal or gas plant has to add the cost of CO2 allowances to its price of power, as happens in other RGGI states, power plants from non-RGGI states that don’t have to charge for CO2 will have a price advantage.

Shobe said if a Virginia utility adds the cost of CO2 allowances to the price of power from its own fossil fuel plants, those plants won’t run as much. Even the utility itself might buy cheaper wholesale power rather than run its own plants. Worse, the imported power could be higher in CO2 than the Virginia power it displaces, a problem known as “leakage.”

Dominion Energy Virginia’s 2018 Integrated Resource Plan, a document that forecasts how the utility will meet electric demand, predicted that if Virginia joined RGGI, its four big gas plants would run only an average of 64 percent of the time in 2025, compared to 79 percent in a scenario with no carbon constraints.

Dominion also claimed the cheaper imported power would come with such a higher carbon footprint than the power it was replacing that the whole deal would be counterproductive as a CO2 reduction strategy.

Skeptics should note that Dominion didn’t report the assumptions behind the modeling. Even its consultant, ICF, included a disclaimer that it was using the information Dominion gave it but “makes no assurances as to the accuracy of any such information or any conclusions based thereon.”

It’s also not clear that Dominion recognized any difference between getting free allowances and having to pay for them.

Shobe explained that Dominion’s modeling program didn’t account for DEQ’s use of “output-based allocation”— that is, distributing carbon allowances for free based on a utility’s generation in the previous year. This approach, said Shobe, incentivizes the utility to keep generating as much zero- or low-carbon electricity as it can so it will get as many allowances the next year as possible, and it will use its allowances to keep its own power competitive with imports.

The modeling that ICF did for Dominion, say Shobe, “treats all allowances as if they are sold at auction. Period. They don’t even attempt to model free allowances much less output-based allocation.”

With free allowances, customer costs should be minimal.

What if we auction the allowances?

Shobe said auctioning allowances instead of distributing them for free would make the power from Virginia’s fossil fuel plants less competitive in the PJM market. Yet customers will still have to pay for the capital cost of these huge gas plants that the SCC itself foolishly allowed Dominion to build, even if the power they generate is less competitive in PJM.

(“Foolishly” is obviously my term for it. The SCC not only doesn’t admit it did anything wrong, it rejected Dominion’s IRP in part because the company didn’t propose building yet another giant gas plant.)

The SCC’s high-end estimate seems to be based on this concern, but its numbers are much higher than even Dominion’s.

Dominion’s IRP estimated that joining RGGI would “cost Virginia customers about $530 million over the period 2020 to 2030,” or $53 million per year. The IRP says the impact would be about $3.50-$5 per month for residential customers, depending on the approach taken.

Even that estimate has to be taken with a bucket of salt. As the SCC staff noted at the time, Dominion overestimated the costs of joining RGGI by using overly high demand projections and failing to assume any decrease in demand from the hundreds of millions of dollars in efficiency programs the utility is required to design.

Obviously, those programs will also lower carbon emissions, helping Virginia meet the RGGI targets—as will building the solar energy envisioned by the grid mod bill.

So how the SCC staff has now come up with cost estimates even higher than Dominion’s is a head-scratcher. Nothing in the Coastal Protection Act appears to add costs beyond what Dominion knew about for its IRP.

This debate is surely not over.

We hope DEQ and the SCC will come together on a shared set of facts and assumptions, but meanwhile it is worth noting two points.

One is that even Dominion agrees some sort of carbon regulation at the federal level is likely eventually, even if it doesn’t happen under President Donald Trump’s administration.

Starting to shrink our carbon footprint now instead of later is going to save us money, even apart from its climate and health benefits.

The other is that the RGGI approach brings proven economic benefits to customers. As the Analysis Group report showed, customers in RGGI states actually saw lower bills in spite of higher rates because of the investments in energy efficiency.

If that happens in Virginia, joining RGGI will actually put more money in the pockets of customers.

 

A version of this article first appeared in the Virginia Mercury on February 6, 2019. 

The remaining energy bills: energy choice, carbon trading, the SCC, and coal. Plus, will Dominion be forced to give up its ill-gotten gains?

This is the last of my three-part review of energy legislation introduced in Virginia’s 2018 session. The first post covered solar bills; the second focused on energy efficiency, storage, and electric vehicles. I’m concluding with bills from the miscellaneous file–some of which, however, will likely be among the most significant energy bills addressed this year.

Energy Choice

Readers will recall the ruckus at the SCC that ensued when third-party electricity provider Direct Energy proposed to offer renewable energy to current Dominion customers. The SCC confirmed last spring that this is allowed under the Virginia Code, but only until Dominion wins approval for its own renewable energy tariff. Dominion immediately filed a tariff, though eight months later, the SCC has yet to rule on it. Irked by the delay, Dominion has gotten two of its best friends to introduce bills forcing the SCC to act faster when Dominion wants something. The bills are SB 285 (Saslaw) and HB 1228 (Hugo).

Meanwhile, Senator Sutterlein has introduced SB 837, allowing customers of Dominion and APCo to purchase electricity generated 100% from renewable energy from any supplier licensed to do business in the state, and eliminating the condition that permits such purchases only if the utility itself does not offer a tariff for 100 percent renewable energy. This would resolve Direct Energy’s conundrum, since the approval of a similar Dominion tariff would not nullify an existing—or future—renewable energy offering from Direct Energy or anyone else. HB 1528 (Mullin) is the companion bill in the House.

Carbon trading

Last May, Governor McAuliffe announced Executive Directive 11, which started the process for drafting regulations that would have Virginia participate in a carbon emissions trading program known as the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI). Electric utilities would be allotted, or would buy, carbon emission allowances. This makes non-carbon-emitting sources and energy efficiency more attractive to utilities than fossil fuel generation. Draft regulations were released in late December, and a comment period runs until April 9, 2018. Governor Northam has pledged to follow through on the program.

As part of this effort, the Administration’s bills include SB 696 (Lewis) and HB 1273 (Bulova), which provide for the state to join RGGI. The legislation is not necessary for Virginia to trade with RGGI, but there is an advantage to the state in doing so: RGGI member states auction off carbon allowances to polluters, rather than giving them away. That provides a significant source of income to the state that can be used to support clean energy, climate adaptation, or other priorities. Accordingly, HB 1273 spells out how the auction revenues would be spent. Energy efficiency and renewable energy would both get pieces of the pie.

Republican critics have counter-attacked. HB 1270 (Poindexter) would prohibit Virginia from joining RGGI or implementing carbon rules. Delegate Yancey, whose lucky win following a tied election barely returned him to office, is affirming his Tea Party credentials with HB 1082, prohibiting state agencies from adopting any rules more stringent than what is required by federal law. And then there is HB 549 (Freitas), which tries to hobble the General Assembly itself, prohibiting any future laws that would direct state agencies to adopt regulations that “are likely to have a significant economic impact” (defined as anything over $500!) unless they pass the bill twice to prove they really, truly mean it.

None of these bills pose a real threat to the Administration’s carbon initiative; the Governor will veto any that pass. A more serious challenge takes the form of a constitutional amendment, because it would not be subject to the Governor’s veto. Last year, Republicans pushed through a bill approving a constitutional amendment that would allow the General Assembly (read: the Republican majority) to nullify any existing regulations enacted by any Virginia state agency on any topic at any time. Since constitutional amendments have to be passed two years in a row before going to the voters for ratification, the same language (which Senator Vogel has reintroduced via SB 826 and SJ69) has to pass again this year.

Bills aimed at the SCC

Our investor-owned utilities are not the only barrier to cleaner energy in Virginia; often the SCC does us no favors either. Some of the energy efficiency bills discussed in my last post would force the SCC to evaluate utility efficiency programs differently. Two other bills are also worth noting:

HB 33 (Kory) repeals a provision prohibiting the SCC from imposing environmental conditions that go beyond what is in a permit, and expressly permits (though it does not require) the SCC to consider environmental effects, including carbon impacts, when evaluating new generating sources.

HB 975 (Guzman) would prohibit the SCC from approving new fossil fuel generating plants unless at least 20% of the generating capacity approved that year uses renewable energy. Too bad we didn’t have a rule like this a few years ago, when Dominion sought (and got) approval for the last of its giant combined-cycle gas plants. Today, however, this could be moot. No utility has proposed a new fossil fuel plant other than relatively small gas combustion turbines (peaker plants), which could meet the 20% rule when paired with even the modest levels of solar generation Dominion contemplates.

Coal subsidies

You think you killed the zombie, but it pops right back up. HB 665 (Kilgore) and SB 378 (Chafin) would reinstate the expired tax subsidies for the mining companies who despoil Virginia mountains. There is little risk of this corporate welfare becoming law again, because the governor would surely veto the legislation if it passes. The more interesting question is whether it gets through this year’s more closely divided General Assembly.

Undoing the Dominion handouts

The boondoggle Dominion won in 2015—the now infamous SB 1349, which allowed the utility to keep overearnings and avoid SCC rate reviews until into the next decade—has been in the news a lot lately. Under pressure from legislators and the media, Dominion has agreed to revisit the so-called “rate freeze.” That doesn’t mean it wants to give the money back. We hear the company is working on a deal with House and Senate leaders that lets it spend its ill-gotten gains on things it wants to do anyway: some for renewables, some for grid upgrades, anything but refunds.

So far, Dominion’s friends in the Senate have its back. Under the guidance of Frank Wagner, the original SB 1349 patron, and Dick Saslaw, Dominion’s top ally among the Democrats, the Commerce and Labor Committee today killed Chap Petersen’s SB 9, which would have restored the SCC’s ability to review utility spending and order refunds. The House companion bill, HB 96 (Rasoul) has not yet been taken up. Currently, no other bills are on file addressing the overearnings, but both Saslaw and Republican Tommy Norment have promised they have excellent bills in the works.

UPDATE January 23: On the last day to file legislation, Terry Kilgore presented us with the first of the new utility boondoggle bills. HB 1558 calls for a small portion of the overcharges to be rebated to customers, after which overcharging would go back to being the normal course of business. Wagner, Saslaw and Newman filed their own bills, supposedly on January 19, though these evaded posting on the website until today. I hear they are similar but haven’t ha time to read them. Petersen, meanwhile, played a new card, introducing SB 955, which would empower the SCC to review the overearnings and order refunds as appropriate.